Review: True West, a True Time Capsule at Steppenwolf Theatre

Steppenwolf ensemble members Jon Michael Hill (Austin) and Namir Smallwood (Lee). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The play that launched Chicago’s lauded ensemble returns to the substantially larger stage for the first time since 1982. Sam Shepard’s True West propelled the Highland Park High School and Illinois State University classmates from their modest Jane Addams Hull House stage to national prominence.

This iteration, directed by Randall Arney, features African American leads chewing the scenery and stealing the toasters. Jon Michael Hill is Austin, a screenwriter on the precipice of a big break, writing his script while house-sitting his mom’s modest bungalow. His estranged brother, ne’er-do-well Lee (Namir Smallwood), shows up to make a mess of floors and lives. The misanthrope admits “This is the last time I try to live with people.”

They are surrounded by crickets outside and familial baggage inside. Twangy interstitial guitar music (designed by Richard Woodbury) evokes the cowboy ethos. Lee remembers his time at the edge of the Mojave desert, the liminal space where Shepard likes to set his kitchen sink dramas.

It’s 1980, but the desert tropes are mostly evergreen, even in an almost Harvest gold kitchen, complete with a macramé owl, spider plants and manual typewriter. Scenic design credit goes to Todd Rosenthal with Ann G. Wrightson’s lighting and Richard Woodbury’s sound design completing the ambience.

We see Shepard, who died in 2017, grapple with his own career aspirations through both brothers and their writing aspirations—one is disciplined yet unsuccessful, and the other a lucky sell-out. The patter is easy, and the performances are vibrant. Francis Guinan reprises his role as smarmy agent Saul, and Jacqueline Williams is the cipher matriarch, unperturbed by the domestic violence.

The underlying theme is “there’s no such thing as the West any more,” which seems to translate in this century as “there’s no such thing as shocking drama any more,” as theater now offers promenade, immersive, multi-day, multi-discipline, multi-cultural and other incessantly genre-breaking production choices, and the real world currently offers non-stop shocks. Pundits often observe that the drama from the present political administration is so extreme that, if it were written in a screenplay, nobody or no studio would buy it. The real world has surpassed scripts. Trashing mom’s house feels tame.

The color-blind casting works here. But race beyond the fourth wall has been demonized and weaponized, creating a now-quaint time capsule on stage.

Additional comments by Nancy Bishop

I first saw—and was shocked by—True West when Steppenwolf staged it in 1982 at the old St. Nicholas Theatre, near Halsted and Wrightwood. My then-husband and I were sitting in the first row, not realizing that might not be wise. We were only pelted by toast, however, so we didn’t need first aid. That was my first Steppenwolf play and I have missed very few of them in the years since. Lee, the character played by John Malkovich, was scary, a threatening force of nature.

I’ve seen True West several times since, decent productions but never with the explosive shock of that first viewing. Most recently, I saw the Roundabout Theatre production on Broadway, directed by James Macdonald and starring Ethan Hawke as Lee and Paul Dano as Austin. I liked the production but it didn’t have the same edge. instead I characterized it as turning the American dream on its head. Hard work (as represented by Austin) doesn’t count. Being a drifter, drinker and fast talker (Lee) is the road to success. And as much as I like Ethan Hawke as an actor, his performance here didn’t have the edge I found myself yearning for. He wasn’t scary. (Perhaps it’s unfair to compare an actor to John Malkovich.)

Karin’s characterization of True West as a time capsule is apt, particularly as this drama is set against the firestorm raging in our politics today. However, I think there’s still room in theater for what is sometimes called kitchen-sink drama, along with all the new, experimental, immersive and genre-defying work that writers want to write and theater-makers want to create.

Sam Shepard’s True West runs at Steppenwolf, Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, through August 25. Tickets start at $20, and shows run Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm and 7:30pm, and Wednesdays at 2pm.

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.